Did you know that:
• Most millennials don’t use Uber?
• Most millennials don’t shop at Wegman’s?
• Most millennials don’t live in Austin?
• Most millennials in the Washington region drive to work alone?
• Most people may be misled by recent headlines about millennials?
Last week, the American University Kogod School of Business released a new Millennials Index based on an online-only survey of 300 people ages 20-34. Amid a lot of interesting findings, the report contained the above graph of transportation mode choices, along with this provocative statement:
While Millennials are often cited as heavy users of alternative transit options, like bike shares and car shares, the reality from our study is that 60% of greater Washington area Millennials are driving alone to work often or always. That’s three times the number who are using the Metro to commute.
While this data is interesting and useful, the reality is that, first, this is not a surprise, and second, this statement is misleadingly worded.
Yes, more people drive alone than take Metro. But, as Faiz Siddiqui wrote in the Washington Post,
Some needed context for the study: The proportion of millennial drivers in the transit-dense District pales in comparison to the nationwide figure. Census figures showed 76.4 percent of American workers commuted by driving in 2013. In the D.C. region, 75.7 percent of workers commuted by driving.
So, millennials drive. But they still drive at a lower rate than the overall population.
Unfortunately, the Post put a headline on Siddiqui’s article that glossed over this important point: “For millennials, commuting around D.C. means choosing ‘the lesser of their evils’ — and that’s driving.”
Not “most millennials” or “many but fewer than the national average” (yes, that’s hard to fit in a headline). The above statement in the millennial report and several other news stories on the same topic (such as ones in the Washington Business Journal and WTOP) also reinforced one or more common fallacies I’ve noticed in transportation discussions with statistics.
The “most millennials don’t live in Austin” fallacy: As Siddiqui noted, while most millennials drive, many fewer do than other groups. A Nielsen study found high concentrations of millennials in certain areas (including Washington as #6). But most millennials still don’t live in Austin, or Salt Lake City, or DC, just because there are so many other places in the US. They do, however, live there at higher rates than others.
This study polled millennials in the entire Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes part of West Virginia. Metro doesn’t extend there, and even the closer-in-counties like Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Fairfax are huge, including land far from most transit. As Arlington Transportation Partners notes, a ULI study of millennials found that inside the Beltway, only 26% commuted by car.
The “most millennials don’t use Uber” fallacy: Just because something isn’t the majority doesn’t mean it’s not growing. As Ben Freed pointed out in Washingtonian, “New transportation infrastructure and technologies are redrawing our mental maps of the region, but not overnight.” Not many people used Capital Bikeshare in the survey, but it’s a lot more than five years ago! Most millennials also still don’t use Uber, but nobody questions that it’s a fast-growing trend.
The “most millennials don’t shop at Wegman’s” fallacy: Just because something isn’t the majority doesn’t mean people don’t want it. A lot of people would love to shop at a Wegman’s: it’s hugely popular. But there aren’t many of them, so most people don’t shop there. We’ve spent a century building car infrastructure to every single house, but not transit to even every town, let alone every neighborhood. In many parts of the region, transit is just not an available option. This doesn’t make it undesired, just unavailable.
I’d also call this one the “Kotkin fallacy” after writer Joel Kotkin, who regularly argues that people prefer suburbs over walkable urban areas because most people live in them. That ignores the fact that there are few walkable urban neighborhoods compared to the many, many suburban ones (and the walkable urban ones are far more expensive).
Meanwhile, many millennials (maybe not all) said that housing prices were a top concern. They called housing prices “insane,” “atrocious” and “unaffordable,” and put housing cost as the second-highest concern, after finding a job.
What fallacies do you see in news coverage of studies like this? What other analogies can you think of?